The two most important things needed to sustain any human population are food and water. In the case of the ancient Maya the procurement of food is probably less of a mystery than the way in which the Maya secured water. Consider the fact that a number of large Maya urban centers, Tikal and Caracol for example, are situated on the landscape in a most inconvenient place to obtain the quantities of water needed to sustain populations in excess of 75,000. At the Classic period site of Tikal in Guatemala there are no natural springs, cenotes (naturally occurring wells) or rivers nearby. Lake Peten Itza, a fresh water source over 300 feet deep is located over twenty miles away. When the University of Pennsylvania carried out archeological research at Tikal in the 1950,s attempts to drill for potable water were abandoned at depths of over 7000 feet. To this day all water used by the hotels at Tikal is brought in by tank-trucks every day.
The Maya stored rainwater in an ingenious way. It is not generally known, but inasmuch as the ancient Maya had no metal tools, the quarrying and shaping of the limestone blocks for construction of the many stone structures in evidence today required some finesse. Once the Maya dug into the moist earth, the limestone they found was relatively soft, and could be shaped nicely by tools made of flint and obsidian. Once the stone had been removed the giant hole remaining was then lined with wet clay and allowed to dry in the heat of the sun during the Dry Season, forming reservoirs.
Now the clever part came next. Maya engineers laid out the large plazas located in the center of the ceremonial/residential complex and paved the entire plaza with plaster made from burned limestone and wood ash. I need not mention the durability of this plaster as you may visit numerous Maya sites and stroll along the plaster walkways today, some 1500 years later. The plazas were designed to tilt slightly in the direction of the reservoirs located just outside the plazas so that the rainwater collected in the plaza would drain into the reservoir. One such plaza at Tikal tilts about five degrees, hardly noticeable when standing in the plaza, but effective nonetheless. The question I have always had is why didn't the Maya simply build their city on the shores of Lake Peten Itza where there was an unlimited supply of fresh water year-round. The answer probably lies with a political or religious issue, which we will probably never get at archeologically.
Of equal interest is the city of Caracol in western Belize. Caracol was probably as large as Tikal, with a population approaching 75,000, and like Tikal had no natural water source except the nearby east branch of The Macal River, some six miles away. The Macal is a lovely mountain stream, cleansed by miles of travel through areas with no human population and even in the Dry Season would supply more than enough water for the residents of Caracol who relied totally on water gathered in reservoirs from the main plazas. Now one of the reservoirs still holds rainwater and having seen it recently I can tell you it definitely makes you willing to take the six-mile trip to the Macal River.
Scholars tell us that some ancient Chinese city sites were selected by priests who during their travels received divine inspiration that pointed to less than wonderful locations for the establishment of settlements. As you know, throughout history there have been times and places where it was downright dangerous to argue with those who enjoyed a direct line to the gods, so cities were built where the priests said build them and that was that.
It is possible we are seeing the same sort of thing in the Maya archeological record although I wouldn't want to be the one to try to prove it.
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